A much-shared video of an Ohio mom getting tased and handcuffed at a middle-school football game should be a reminder that turning everything into a legal matter is just begging for violent conflict. Once a desire—or even a good idea—is turned into a mandate enforceable by the cops, violence is only one disagreement away.
In watching the video, it's obvious that there was plenty of bad judgment going around in the open-air bleachers of Logan-Hocking School District that day. That goes for mask-resistant Alecia D. Kitts herself, rules-spewing school officials, and the Logan Police Department cops who escalated assertions of their authority over a minor dispute into a lightning ride.
Let's start with Kitts. Video of the incident starts after the cops grab her, but apparently that came after a prolonged argument over her refusal to wear a mask while watching the game. She claimed to have asthma and so be exempted, but that didn't satisfy the folks running the event who asked her to leave.
Here's the thing: while there's debate over the effectiveness of masks—the CDC is for them, while the World Health Organization remains lukewarm—that's irrelevant when you're in somebody else's domain. It's their property so they make the rules. If they want you to wear a face mask, or a propeller beanie, or to take off your shoes, you should comply or leave. That's just good manners. Throwing a hissy fit because a host asks you to do something you don't want to do in their facility isn't an option.
Second in the bad-judgment parade are the school officials, who must know that there are huge tensions over mask-wearing, which has become a point of contention and a partisan divide. Should it be that big a deal? That doesn't matter—it is. But there are constructive approaches for addressing controversial issues.
Cottonwood, Arizona—the town nearest me—settled on a workable compromise. The town has a mask mandate, which carries no enforcement provisions or penalties. Most stores post signs which are respected by the majority of patrons but ignored by a minority. There's a measure of protection for mask-wearers and a measure of independence for mask-refusers. Nobody gets hot and bothered because face masks aren't worth wrestling matches in the produce section.
Logan cops should have remembered that masks don't rate personal combat before they tased an ill-mannered mom over her refusal to wear a cloth covering in uncrowded bleachers under an open sky. There was no reason for that, aside from resentment that anybody could refuse their commands.
Admittedly, Kitts wasn't officially arrested for her mask-resistance; that was just the starting point. "It is important to note, the female was not arrested for failing to wear a mask, she was asked to leave the premises for continually violating school policy," huffs the Logan Police Department. "Once she refused to leave the premises, she was advised she was under arrest for criminal trespassing, she resisted the arrest, which led to the use of force."
But that's always the case. Selling loose cigarettes, or hanging out, or a faulty brake light easily turns into a grab-bag of charges, usually including "resisting arrest." Then we're supposed to believe that the subsequent wrestling, beating, tasing, or shooting are perfectly justified, even though it all started with some minor violation.
"Undoubtedly, lawmakers have put too many crimes and civil violations on the books that can lead to police-initiated contact, a phenomenon broadly captured by the term overcriminalization," Jonathan Blanks points out in a recent piece for Reason. "But every day, police officers routinely use personal and institutional discretion to ignore countless violations that range from jaywalking to not using a turn signal to public consumption of drugs and alcohol. Thus, the determination of how often and under what circumstances to make traffic or pedestrian stops is ultimately one of policy, not one of law."
Blanks emphasizes that the multitude of rules on the books put enforcement discretion in the hands of police officers. They invariably give some people a pass while coming down hard on vulnerable groups, such as racial minorities, as well as individuals that authorities dislike.
"The police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you," observed Yale Law School's Stephen L. Carter in 2014 after New York City cops killed Eric Garner in a confrontation rooted in the illegal sale of loose cigarettes. "Fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand," he added.
Face mask mandates are just another set of intrusions into our lives that set the ground for confrontations between armed enforcers and relatively powerless people. It's all about making the hoi polloi do what they're told.
That compliance and not health are the issue is obvious in the video of the Ohio incident in which School Resource Officer Chris Smith grapples with Kitts. That's certainly higher risk for spreading disease than is leaving an unmasked woman to sit on a bench at a distance from other attendees.
You could say the same of the unmasked psalm-singing protesters arrested last week at the city hall parking lot in Moscow, Idaho, for refusing to wear masks (and for add-on charges, of course). Putting hands on violators was riskier than letting them stand closer than social-distancing rules recommend.
It was the same in the past. During the Spanish flu pandemic, when mask mandates were as controversial as they are now, San Francisco authorities arrested 1,000 "mask slackers" in one day and jammed them into "standing room only" prisons—an environment ripe for virus transmission.
Let's emphasize here that the effectiveness of masks is irrelevant. We could find definitive evidence tomorrow that masks help to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and that still wouldn't add a gloss of brilliance to getting cops involved. Violent enforcement should be reserved for serious matters, not for failures of hygiene and good manners.
The same consideration goes for traffic rules, tax violations, loitering, and a host of other victimless or minor transgressions. The rules may involve policy preferences, or potentially helpful ideas, but making them enforceable by police action has very high costs of its own. There are remarkably few situations that are improved by introducing violent enforcement into the situation—especially when we know that some violators will get a pass and others will bear the full force of the law.
Wherever you stand on the mask debate, keep in mind that it's just one of many disputes over how people should behave. And whatever your preferences, having the police shove them down people's throats is unlikely to make the world a better place.